There are people in your phone and they have something they’d like to sing to you.
That’s right – all those emojis you use to embellish or simplify your texts are people, too, and now there’s a brand new musical in the works about them. Yes, even the pile of poo.
Thankfully, their songs have music and lyrics by Keith Harrison and a book by Keith and Laura Harrison. (Yes, they’re married. And yes they’re adorable.)
A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of hosting an event called Musi-CAL. Presented by the Festival of New American Musicals, Musi-CAL is a bimonthly concert series featuring material from new and in-progress musicals written by Southern Californian composers, lyricists, and bookwriters.
The final presentation was Keith and Laura’s show, Emojiland. I can’t even describe the energy that filled the room with each song they presented. Everyone in attendance was blown away by the quality and production-value of their work. It was simply stellar.
I met Keith and Laura separately – Laura and I did a reading together at the Geffen Playhouse, and Keith was the musical director and arranger for Falling for Make Believe, about the untold story of Lorenz Hart. Keith’s arrangements of Rodgers and Hart’s songs pretty much stole the show, and I knew he was a musical genius of the wunderkind variety:
“I’ve been defined by musical and theatrical inclinations all my life. I started playing the piano when I was three or four, and played a couple dozen other instruments at varying degrees of proficiency throughout my childhood. I performed in all the school productions, and was exceptionally fortunate to have had fantastic teachers growing up in a district that valued the arts. Springfield, NJ. Every few years, the middle and high schools would put on fully produced, student-written shows. In hindsight, it’s incredible that my classmates and I had the opportunity to develop our creativity and skills like that, but at the time it just felt like a fun challenge. I would write or co-write songs, teach them to the actors, and play piano for the shows. At Northwestern, I wrote a couple songs for the Waa-Mu show, and participated in the Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project, but I became known primarily as a music director. During my junior year, I started working professionally among Chicago’s spectacular theatre community, and built my career from there. I never directly pursued a career as a musical theatre composer, per se. I wrote a few short musicals for Highland Park’s recently-defunct Music Theatre Company as part of their 48-hour Musicals festival, the last of which Laura wrote with me, but I long avoided writing a full-length piece for multiple reasons. When friends and colleagues asked, I’d say, “I will… when the right idea comes along.” And then, it did.”
Keith and Laura originally met at Northwestern University during a summer musical called The Boys Are Coming Home. “We were both in the ensemble, and didn’t even speak to one another until the final weekend of performances. It all happened very quickly, and now, nine years later, it feels as if we’ve been together our whole lives.”
Dealing with conflict in a collaboration is inevitable. How does this team deal with it? “The same way we navigate conflict in our marriage: Laura’s always right. No, I’m kidding. There’s an old saying we included in our wedding vows, whereby we promised to be ‘slow to accuse and quick to forgive.’ If one of us wants to explore an idea, the other gives it room. If the other person has a knee-jerk reaction, whether positive or negative, we talk it out. Our personal relationship is built on respect, admiration and patience, so our working relationship follows suit.”
Originality is a rare thing in musical theatre – an art form that has always been one of adaptation. So when I see an original idea for a story, it counts for a lot in my book. I’m fascinated to know where ideas come from and how writers struggle to get their finished product onto the page and then the stage.
I asked Keith some questions about the origin story of their show, and here’s what he had to say.
Where did the idea for Emojiland come from?
Google. Out to dinner one night in May last year, Laura and I were talking about maybe writing a full show together. Taking Mr. Sondheim’s advice, we knew we had to get a gimmick, so I looked up what the most searched word on Google was at the time: “emoji.” After a little digging, I discovered emojis are public domain, and that was the clincher. We started kicking around some different ideas as to how to develop the show, had some really bad ones, but eventually found our way in.
What were the biggest challenges in writing it?
Since it’s based on computer code, we had to design the story and universe from scratch, which was equal parts fun and torture. We love being imaginative, but often found ourselves crippled by an overabundance of possibilities. On top of that, I refused to write a lick of music until we had a working first draft of a treatment, and refused to write the book until the songs were done. The process of writing the treatment draft took us three months. Writing the score took nine, on and off, and the book took two. The major challenge throughout was juggling rewrites. Each new song brought clarity to its respective moment, and that clarity would inevitably reveal some structural or thematic aberration elsewhere in the plot. Writing dialogue revealed problems in between problems.
And how did you get through them?
Well, whether the problem was a character, a scene, or a rhyme, ninety-nine percent of the time the solution was research. In order to understand the emoji building with the H and heart on it, I watched the documentary Love Hotel on Amazon Instant Video. When struggling to explain the existence of cogent digital beings inside a phone, we referenced books like Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs from MIT’s online library. Designing a system of laws and norms for our emoji society led us to ancient texts like the Qur’an, the Code of Ur-Nammu and writings on Buddhism. I can’t remember where I heard this, but apparently Hammerstein would spend days or weeks “pre-writing” a song, getting to know the character, the moment, the context, everything; then the process of actually writing a song would take just a matter of hours. That was my experience as well.
What do you want people to come away from your show with?
A good mood! I like shows and movies that make me cry in the middle and cheer at the end. Hopefully, we can pull that off. I also want people to walk out with a rejuvenated appreciation for the miracle of life. It’s amazing!
What’s the one thing you’d like to see more of in the American musical?
All art, I think, is comprised of two fundamental components — thesis and articulation — and the American musical faces specific challenges when approaching the marriage of the two. Jukebox musicals, for instance, have to overcome an inherent separation of score and book in the mind of the audience in order to deliver ideas in a compelling way, and creators of these pieces are continually learning how to do that. Should songs be practical, like in Million Dollar Quartet, integrated like in Rock of Ages, be a combo-platter like Beautiful, or supplemented with additional original music like On Your Feet? Sung-through musicals must balance recit and aria: should they be all-aria, like Joseph or American Idiot, or more operatically constructed like Rent or Les Mis? The right answers are unique to each piece, which is why the one thing I’d like to see more of in the American musical is continued invention. Inventive casting, inventive movement, inventive design, inventive writing… musical theatre is the most artistically inclusive art form on the planet, so the biggest mistake we can make as creators, critics, and audiences is to box ourselves into the methods of articulation we’re used to instead of exploring new ways to express and adorn story through song.